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Completing the Count: The 2000 Census

March 23, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Conception and Jose Torres struggle with their census form in their Chicago kitchen. Like one in six Americans, the Torres’ received the long form, and Jose Torres thinks the questions are way too personal.

CONCEPTION TORRES: They want to know how much you get for your retirement.


CONCEPTION TORRES: Okay. When was your building built?

JOSE TORRES: Why do they want to know that?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The U.S. Census Bureau is spending about $300 million promoting and advertising the census, trying to convince people like the Torres’ to overcome their reluctance and send in their forms.

ANNOUNCER: Fill out your census. It helps determine how federal funds get spent. This is your future. Don’t leave it blank.

ANA MARIA SOTO: The census is about power– political power– and money for our community. All federal money is distributed based on the census. Okay? Everybody counts. Every single person counts. It doesn’t matter what your migratory status is; if you are a child that is a day old or a person who cannot see. Every single person counts.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The census message is also being delivered face to face. Ana Maria Soto has spent the last six months meeting with large and small groups, talking about the importance of the census to the Latino community. Minorities were undercounted at a much higher rate than the general population in the 1990 Census, and Latinos had the highest undercount of any minority group: About 5%, or close to 1.5 million Latinos were not counted ten years ago. Soto, an attorney with MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, sees the undercount as a civil rights issue.

ANA MARIA SOTO, Mexican American Legal Defense Fund: We feel that if we don’t get our fair share in political power, in funding, it becomes a civil rights issue, and that’s why this is the fourth time that MALDEF has been a leader in leading the way in census promotion for the Latino community.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Despite the outreach, Soto says fear remains the biggest reason behind the failure to return forms– fear that the information asked for will not stay within the Census Bureau.

ANA MARIA SOTO: It is illegal for other parts of the government to receive your information. So the INS, which is immigration, cannot receive the information. FBI, CIA, IRS– not even the President of the United States can get this information.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A neighborhood community organization spreads the same message as organizers go door- to-door in a Chicago Latino neighborhood.

SPOKESPERSON: Buenos tardes. (Speaking Spanish)

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Community organizer Hector Rico says the toughest task is to try and convince illegal immigrants to send back census forms.

HECTOR RICO, Latino Organization of the Southwest: One of the main fears is that that information is going to be misused for the immigration purpose. Even though there are lots of commercials out there, and a lot of publicity assuring that people… Assuring that the Immigration Department is not going to be using that information for other purpose, there are still some concerns.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Jose Torres was born in Mexico, but became a citizen years ago. His wife was born in the U.S. of Mexican heritage. They do not fear immigration, but despite the strong messages from the Census Bureau, they are not convinced that their answers would be confidential.

JOSE TORRES: I don’t think it’s true. I don’t believe it.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: You don’t believe it?


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Why don’t you believe it?

CONCEPTION TORRES: I don’t believe it because like I say, is it confidential when you go to the doctor? The nurse that goes in there in the room? Then why does everybody knows what disease you have?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Like many Latinos, the Torres’ were confused about two questions about ethnicity and race on the census form. Hispanics lobbied hard for a separate question asking if a person is of Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino heritage. The Torres’ answered yes to the Hispanic question, marking the box for “Mexican, Mexican, American or Chicano.” But they couldn’t figure out what to mark for the next question, on race. The choices range from white, black, African American or Negro, American Indian, to many Asian choices– Japanese, Vietnamese– but no Latino choices. And when you came up here, what did you put?



CONCEPTION TORRES: Or whatever. I can’t be a Negro.

JOSE TORRES: Okay, okay.

CONCEPTION TORRES: I mean, look at me. It’s just like when I was going out to look for a flat to rent. It said “white only.” I looked at my skin and I said, “what color am I?” I knocked, and still, they didn’t want me.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you consider yourself white?


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What race do you consider yourself?

JOSE TORRES: Well, I’m Latino, but I’m not white.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Latinos are not the only minority group being courted to participate in the census. African Americans also had a high undercount in 1990. The census was tops on the agenda at Jesse Jackson’s community forum last Saturday.

JESSE JACKSON, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition: Everybody should count. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census count.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The regional census director told the crowd Chicago lost as much as $320 million in revenue because of the city’s undercount in the last census.

STANLEY MOORE, Bureau of the Census: So, if you want transportation, housing, health care, schools, the only way you’re going to get it is to fill out that census form. If you want political representation at the local level, at the congressional level, you’ve got to fill out that census form.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Reapportionment of congressional districts is one of the oldest and most important uses of census data, and the fear of losing a congressional seat, perhaps even a minority one, is one of the biggest reasons behind the push for a complete count in states like Illinois. Congressman Danny Davis has represented a west side city and suburban Chicago area district since 1996. He thinks the threat of losing an Illinois congressional seat is a serious one.

REP. DANNY DAVIS, (D) Illinois: There was a time when Illinois, of course, had 22 members of Congress, 24 members of Congress. We’re down to 20. And so we can’t possibly suggest that it couldn’t happen, because we’ve seen it happen, and we know that there has been movement, the mobility of people. If we count the people, though, I think we’re going to be all right. If we don’t, we’re in trouble.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: To try and stay out of trouble, Illinois and other states have formed complete count committees. Albert Pritchett heads the Cook County Complete Count Committee.

ALBERT PRITCHETT, Cook County Complete Census Committee: These would be volunteer efforts to relate to the Census Board, to try to interpret for people in various communities exactly how important the census report is to people in communities, in terms of revenue, in terms of apportionment, and so forth.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But despite all the efforts, the Torres’ remain unconvinced.

CONCEPTION TORRES: My husband has told me to throw it in the cabinet, which would be the garbage can, because he says they don’t have to know what he gets for Social Security. How much he gets pension from General Motors, what are our taxes and all that. So he says “don’t fill it out.”

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Is that what you think?

JOSE TORRES: That’s what I think. It’s too many questions.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What can you tell them about why they should fill out this form?

ANA MARIA SOTO: I think if they understand what is at stake, what it means to have to live with erroneous numbers for ten years, that the funding is affected, that our political representation is affected, that the information is confidential, that it’s the law– these are things that might change people’s minds.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And, says Soto, if the Torres’ don’t send the form back, sometime between now and July, a census-taker will knock on their door, and once again try and convince them of the importance of sharing their personal information with the U.S. Census Bureau.